Revenue: SABC chair Bongumusa Makhathini says MultiChoice must pay the broadcaster. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI/SUNDAY TIMES
Revenue: SABC chair Bongumusa Makhathini says MultiChoice must pay the broadcaster. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI/SUNDAY TIMES

An impact assessment will be conducted on the contentious regulations that allow pay-TV operators to carry the SABC’s free-to-air channels free.

This is in the wake of MultiChoice’s opposition to the public broadcaster’s calls for operators to pay a fee for the service.

In 2008 the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) introduced "must carry" regulations, compelling pay-TV companies to carry the SABC’s free-to-air channels — SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 — in support of universal access.

MultiChoice says it is irrational for the public broadcaster to now require its DStv bouquet to pay to carry the three channels as they are freely available in any case. But the SABC argues MultiChoice has benefited from the channels on DStv, claiming they are among the most watched on the platform.

In a letter to Icasa in 2017, SABC chair Bongumusa Makhathini said that the "must carry" rules had "had a serious impact on the SABC from a potential revenue point of view".

The public broadcaster has been looking to unlock new revenue streams in a bid to remedy its dire financial situation.

Icasa spokesperson Paseka Maleka said the regulatory impact assessment will determine whether or not the "must carry" regulations have fulfilled their intended objectives, looking at both economic and noneconomic factors.

"Icasa has issued a questionnaire requesting data from interested stakeholders that will assist the authority in making an informed decision whether or not to review the regulations. Interested stakeholders have until 26 October 2018 to send back the questionnaire for consideration," said Maleka.

In his letter to Icasa, Makhathini said the regulations "zero rate" the SABC channels and created a "noncommercial negotiating environment".

The regulation seemed to have been drafted on the basis that the "must carry obligation" was an onerous one for subscription broadcasters, which would be "doing the public broadcaster a favour" by carrying its channels, he said.

"The SABC will demonstrate in the public process that, on the contrary, the SABC 'must carry' channels have commercially benefited MultiChoice Africa at the expense of the public broadcaster," said Makhathini.

MultiChoice had written to Icasa taking issue with being singled out by the SABC. It also said it was "disingenuous" of the SABC to raise a nine-year-old issue out of the blue.

Maximum access

MultiChoice SA CEO Calvo Mawela said in an interview that the "must carry" regulations were to ensure as many people as possible had access to the SABC channels, "which is their [SABC’s] mandate anyway".

"I cannot comprehend the SABC’s position…. As you know, nobody has to pay to receive the channels except for the TV licence … the channels are therefore freely available anyway … our carriage is to make it easy for our subscribers to access the channels without the need to put an aerial to receive the channels that are freely available," said Mawela.